Reflections on the Influence, and Damage, of Plato’s Timaeus 28a
The Timaeus is Plato’s account of the creation of the world. Ancient philosophers were divided as to whether Plato meant the work to be taken literally or mythically, as are modern scholars. The work was arguably the single most cited work by early church fathers. And the text I want to reflect on (28a) is one of the most quoted texts, both by church fathers and other ancient philosophers. This passage expresses one of the most influential — and in my opinion, theologically disastrous — ideas in history.
In this passage Plato states the basic question this work is going to address. “What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which becomes but never is” (Tim. 28a)? Lets notice at the start that Plato’s question presupposes that “that which always is” must be devoid of any “becoming” — which means, “that which truly is” can’t come into being, can’t change in any respect, and can’t perish. His question also presupposes that “that which becomes” never truly “is.” So, things that come into being, change and eventually perish never really exist.
What this means is that, in Plato’s view, the perpetually changing world we live in is not really real. The only thing that is really real is that which is absolutely unchanging. This is part of what Plato means when he describes the world of time and change as “a moving image of eternity” (Tim. 37d). As a moving shadow of a tree is to a real tree, so our physical world of time and change is to real reality. The physical world of time and change is a quasi-real moving shadow of a different, more real, eternally-the-same world.
Now, for Plato this eternally-the-same real world was a realm of abstract ideas that he called “Forms.” But later Platonists and Christians identified this realm with God, and the “Forms” as God’s ideas. Two things resulted from this.
First, God had to be thought of as eternally unchanging. Nothing about God, including God’s knowledge and experience, can ever change in any respect. God can’t experience one thing one moment, and another thing the next moment. Rather, God must experience all of time in one eternal now. This is where we get the very common assumption that “God is outside of time.”
I would argue that every verb ascribed to God in the Bible – including the teaching that God responds to prayer, is affected by the world, and that he became a human being – contradicts this timeless, utterly unchanging conception of God. The whole Bible narrative presupposes that God has a real “before” and “after,” and that God not only affects the world but is affected by the world. And yet, because of Plato’s influence, this eternally-the-same conception of God was the dominant conception throughout Church history. In fact, it constitutes the essence of what is called “the classical conception of God.”
Second, identifying God as “that which truly is” implies that everything that transpires in the world of time and change must simply be a “moving image” of God’s will. History simply reflects the eternally-the-same will and knowledge of God; it doesn’t contribute to it. This is what I call “the blueprint worldview,” for in this view everything in time follows an eternal “blueprint” in heaven. When in the face of tragedy people instinctively recite mantras like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Nothing happens by accident,” they are reflecting this platonic, blueprint, worldview.
This too is hard to reconcile with the view of God in the Bible. Yes God brings a purpose to everything (Rom. 8:28), but the Bible doesn’t teach that everything happens because of a divine purpose. Rather, the Bible teaches that God is against a lot of things that happen, for they are evil.
It’s also very hard (impossible, in my view) to reconcile this platonic, blueprint view with free will and with the fact that the world is filled with nightmarish evil. If God is all-good, you’d expect the “moving shadow” of his timeless will to be all good as well. But it’s obviously not. The amount of philosophical and theological literature written to attempt to reconcile the blueprint worldview with free will and the reality of evil could fill a university library.
My main point right in this little reflection, however, is that the only reason we have these problems in the first place is that we have inadvertently allowed ourselves to come under Plato’s assumption that “that which truly is” must be devoid of “becoming.”
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Why should we assume that “that which truly is” must be devoid of all becoming or that “that which becomes” cannot truly exist? Why must God be frozen in a state devoid of sequence? Why can’t God change, be affected, be responsive, etc., precisely because he “truly is”? What, after all, is so imperfect about “becoming”?
Obviously, God can’t come into being or go out of being. God can’t “become” in that sense. But that is simply one kind of change. There’s other kinds of change that are not only compatible with perfection, but required by it. For example, if one person changes their demeanor in response to another person’s suffering, that is not evidence of a defect in that person. It’s rather evidence that they are a loving person. So too, if God is love, as the Bible teaches, we should expect God to be the most changing being because he lovingly responds to all people at all times. This is the opposite of a deity who is frozen in eternal sameness.
Plato has a lot of great insights. I love reading his works. But when it comes to thinking about God and time and change, I encourage you to take your cues from the Bible, not Plato (and thus not traditional theology insofar as it has been influenced by him). The true God is not frozen! The true God is revealed in Jesus Christ, who is God-become-human!